Ferry operator Stena is cutting 150 jobs in the UK and Republic of Ireland, it has been announced.

The firm has also announced plans to furlough 600 staff in what it says is an urgent and unavoidable response to the COVID-19 crisis.

Bosses say the major decline in passenger numbers and freight tonnages are not expected to recover until well into 2021.

"The COVID-19 crisis has meant that Stena Line is experiencing a significant decline in passenger and freight volumes across all its 20 European routes.

"We are having to make some very difficult decisions, that we hoped we would never have to make.” says Ian Hampton, Director, Stena Line.

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On Tuesday, the First Minister told ITV Border's Peter Macmahon she would encourage any businesses "to take any steps that protect employment" as the government wanted to retain productive capacity for the economy for when the coronavirus lockdown was lifted.

Nicola Sturgeon said the Scottish Government was aware of the strategic impact of some of the routes Stena sail, some lifeline services, and had looked at some of the issues already.

She said she would ask Michael Matheson, cabinet secretary for transport, and Fiona Hyslop, cabinet secretary for the economy, to look into this further "to see if there is more we can do in the south of Scotland".

Colin Smyth, who is the Labour MSP for the south of Scotland, says Stena move "hammers home again that the economic support from Government is simply not going to scratch the surface of the economic tsunamis hitting the region in the weeks and months ahead and more will be required if the local economy is to avoid collapse.

“This needs to be a wakeup call to both the Scottish and UK Governments that our area needs action to save jobs now.”

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The announcement follows a reduction of the number of sailings on several routes; several vessels have also been taken out of service.

Ian Hampton, Director at Stena Line, said: “In order to secure the continuity of our freight operations, we have no choice but to reduce our costs. We are committed to keep vital supply lines open for UK and Ireland.

"Regrettably we must furlough employees on temporary paid leave and make redundancies, as we adjust to this new reality.

"We will do everything in our means to ensure essential supply lines stay operational during what is a very difficult time for the company and the countries that we serve”, adds Hampton.

Stena Line says everyone on furlough will receive 80% of their salaries.

The company is evaluating its operations in all regions and does not rule out that there could be further furlough, redundancy or changes to its current sailing schedules or routes.

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In response to the First Minister's promise that Mr Matheson and Ms Hyslop would look at the issue, the Scottish government sent ITV Border a statement.

A spokesperson said: “Like all transport operators, Stena Line is facing difficult decisions in order to continue to operate in this incredibly challenging time. The maritime sector globally is facing a significant downturn in the face of the coronavirus outbreak, which is resulting in job losses, cancellation of routes and reductions in frequency.

“We recognise the important role Stena Line plays in ensuring the continued movement of people and freight, including medicines and food, for both the Northern Irish and Scottish markets. It is vital to protect necessary service levels on this critical freight route."

The spokesperson said the Scottish Government was ready to provide support through its Partnership Action for Continuing Employment (PACE) initiative to Scotland-based staff affected by redundancies at Stena Line.

They added they wanted to "reiterate" Mr Matheson's call for "further intervention from the UK Government to help this sector during these unprecedented times".

The Scottish government was monitoring the impact of COVID-19 on the Scottish economy very closely and "will do all we can to support businesses, build economic resilience and stimulate growth, jobs and investment”.